Matthew Xuereb, AFP
Last updated: 13 October, 2013

Malta shipwreck survivors say shots were fired at boat

Malta on Sunday called on the European Union to develop a “clear strategy” to deal with migrants fleeing conflicts to their shores after two shipwrecks claimed hundreds of lives.

“We are no superpower,” Prime Minister Joseph Muscat told AFP. “But we do not only control our border but also Europe’s borders, and Italy is doing the same.”

Also Sunday, Syrian refugees who survived a boat capsize off Malta said they were fired on by “militiamen” as they set out on their perilous journey from Libya.

At least 36 people perished after the boat sank on Friday, a week after another shipwreck off Italy left at least 359 dead.

“Those people had a life and a stable job in their country but could not live there any longer,” Muscat said. “The group that arrived (in Malta) yesterday included 10 medical doctors and a neurosurgeon.”

The prime minister complained of the “very little response” Malta had received in appeals for EU solidarity over the humanitarian crisis.

“This situation cannot be solved with money but with political commitment and a clear strategy,” he said.

Earlier Sunday, Muscat held a surprise meeting in Libya with his counterpart Ali Zeidan, saying afterwards that the north African country was “part of the solution”.

A boat carrying up to 400 migrants, mostly Syrians, left the western Libyan port of Zwara on Thursday.

Some of the more than 200 survivors said Libyan militiamen shot wildly at them, leaving several people dead and causing the vessel to take on water and sink.

Syrian national Mohammed, 34, wept as he recalled his desperate search for his missing pregnant wife and seven-year-old daughter after he and his other five-year-old daughter managed to reach safety.

Mohammed said he had paid $4,800 (3,500 euros) to seek a better life in Europe, crossing through Egypt to Libya.

“When we got on the boat, Libyan militia put their machine guns to our heads and demanded more money. I had $5,000 and they took this too,” Mohammed said from a detention camp in Malta.

He said the Libyan gunmen followed them for four or five hours.

“All of a sudden, they started shooting at us and the boat… All I could think of at that time was to protect my two young children.

“Then they started shooting more bullets at the boat and they managed to puncture it. Lots of water started coming in…. We all ended up in the sea. I grabbed my daughter. She swallowed water but I managed to swim and we got onto a raft rescuers threw in the water,” Mohammed said.

‘I lost practically all I had’

‘Asking us for money, our kidneys’

Another survivor, 25-year-old Aisha from Lebanon, told AFP the militiamen “pointed their guns at us, asking us for money, for our kidneys and our livers. When no one gave in, they started shooting at us, injuring two.”

Citing other survivors’ accounts, the UN refugee agency spoke of several injured, saying shots were fired “perhaps by militiamen who shot to kill”.

Molhake al-Roarsan, 22, interviewed by Italy’s La Stampa daily, said he thought the attacks were related to a dispute between different groups of human traffickers.

“There was a furious fight, screaming on the radio and on the phone with someone who demanded that we return to land, but the captain did not stop.”

Once they reached Malta, the Tunisian captain was arrested after being recognised by survivors, according to media reports.

‘I lost practically all I had’

Ashur, a Syrian, said he and his family were fleeing the civil war in his home country. When the vessel capsized he managed to save his two-year-old daughter but lost his son and wife who was pregnant with twins.

“I lost practically all I had. What I have left to live for is my daughter who I will not let go out of my arms,” Ashur told AFP.

Meanwhile searches were continuing after 180 migrants from Egypt, Somalia and Eritrea who were rescued overnight Friday arrived Sunday in Porto Empedocle, in Sicily.

The town is also where the first 150 coffins containing the victims of the October 3 shipwreck off the Italian island of Lampedusa were taken for burial.

Italian and Maltese forces on Sunday rescued a total of 386 people aboard two boats and escorted them to Sicily. Around 100 were taken to Malta.

Italian customs police meanwhile rescued around 200 migrants who were expected to head to southern Italy.

Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta has announced an “Italian sea and air humanitarian mission” in the Mediterranean on Monday that would triple available vessels and add aviation to ward off further tragedies.

Foreign Minister Emma Bonino stressed that patrols should serve to rescue migrants rather than “telling them to stay where they are”.

Italy has also appealed to fellow EU states for help in managing the crisis and wants migration to be put on the agenda of summit talks in Brussels later this month.

According to UNHCR estimates, some 32,000 migrants have arrived in Malta and Italy this year.